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The Best Documentaries on Netflix Right Now

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Through its Watching newsletter, What to Watch page and many curated lists, The New York Times looks to guide readers through the chaotic world of streaming services and offer recommendations of the best films and TV shows to watch.

ImageSteven Avery in “Making a Murderer.”
Credit…Netflix

Netflix had its first big nonfiction cultural touchstone in 2015 with this 10-part examination of the trials of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was released from prison after 18 years when DNA evidence cleared him of one murder, only to find himself back on trial two years later for another. The filmmakers’ access to many of the participants puts the viewer right in the middle of the engrossing trial, and their skill for constructing cliffhangers makes it hard to resist bingeing the entire thing.

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Credit…Sundance Channel

The most influential predecessor to “Making a Murderer” was most likely this Peabody Award-winning docu-series, which originally aired in eight parts on French and British television in 2004, with additional episodes added in 2013 and 2018. Covering the arrest and trial of the novelist Michael Peterson, accused of murdering his wife in December of 2001, it initially seems a fairly straightforward story; it turns out to be anything but. The director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade uses the expansive running time and his extensive access to Peterson’s attorneys to construct a detail-oriented account of how a defense is mounted and presented, and to delve into the fascinating contradictions of its enigmatic subject.

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Credit…Netflix

The bizarre death of Brian Wells, a pizza delivery man forced to rob a bank with a bomb attached to his body, is the focus of this 2018 four-parter from the directors Barbara Schroeder and Trey Borzillieri. The filmmakers immerse themselves in the criminal subculture of Erie, Penn., and find a colorful cast of characters there — particularly Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, who may or may not be the mastermind of the title. Like many a good docu-series, it embraces the story’s complexity, following the many strands, fake-outs and dead ends of this spider web of a crime, in which the actions and motivations of everyone (including the victim) are up for debate.

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Many of the best true-crime documentaries have a pronounced “truth is stranger than fiction” element, but Skye Borgman’s 2019 feature turns that aspect up to 11. It tells the story of Jan Broberg Felt, who was abducted by a neighbor and family friend, Robert Berchtold, when she was only 12 years old — and then, improbably and inexplicably, abducted again several years later. It sounds impossible, but Borgman deftly demonstrates how her abductor exploited the trust of his community (and, shockingly, his proximity to her parents) for his nefarious purpose.

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When Alex Lewis was 18 years old, he woke from a coma with no memories at all, of his life or the people in it. He remembered only Marcus, his twin brother, who was left to fill in all of the gaps. But there is more to Alex’s story than his brother told him — childhood secrets and horrifying traumas, which he consciously chose to withhold. And given the choice, the director Ed Perkins asks, would you do the same? This gutting and powerful documentary reconstructs the real story of Alex’s childhood as he discovers it, and in doing so, asks vital questions about the rose-colored glasses through which we consider our past and present.

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Credit…Netflix

This seven-part series begins as an investigation into the savage murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik, a half-century old Baltimore cold case that may implicate the police department, the local Archdiocese and the Catholic Church. But it’s not just another sprawling, shocking page-turner (though it is certainly that, and a gripping one to boot). The director Ryan White’s sensitive presentation and brilliant structure refuses to sensationalize the material, devoting long, haunting stretches of the series to victims’ trauma and institutional maleficence. It never lets the viewer forget about the human toll of this crime, and not just on the woman at its center.

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This 2016 mystery takes a deep dive into the arrest and trial of Amanda Knox, an American student in Italy convicted of participating in her roommate’s murder. But the film is just as interested in the intense media scrutiny surrounding the case and in how the biases and excesses that informed that coverage may have filtered into the courtroom. And it’s no open-and-shut case; the filmmakers keep their subject an enigma and allow viewers to draw their own conclusions about who she is and what she knew.

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Credit…Netflix

“I tell people now,” chuckles one of the residents of Antelope, Ore., “and they still don’t believe it.” It’s hard to blame them. Maclain and Chapman Way’s six-part documentary exposé of the guru known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and the followers who took over that desert area in the early 1980s is a twisty, twisted tale of guns, sex, immigration fraud, wiretapping, mass food poisoning and attempted assassinations. Every new ripple is more jaw-dropping than the last.

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Somehow, the Netflix programming team keeps finding these absorbing and nuanced true-crime docu-series. Here, director Brian Knappenberger — best-known for the issue-driven documentary features “The Internet’s Own Boy” and “Nobody Speak” — takes the tragic story of an 8-year-old Los Angeles County boy’s death by torture and uses it as a way into a larger critique of the social services system that allowed it to happen. The series covers the final days of Fernandez’s life in often disturbing detail, but it also follows the crusading journalists who helped elevate his case to the level of a scandal.

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The Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls weren’t just the most dominant NBA team of the 1990s; they were also a constant source of off-the-court drama, famed for their glamorous lifestyles and bitter interpersonal conflicts. The addicting 10-part docu-series “The Last Dance” arrived at just the right time in the summer of 2020, giving sports fans and TV fans something to look forward to each week with its detailed look back at the Bulls and Jordan’s decade of glory and excess. Our critic Wesley Morris said: “You could call these 10 hours a walk down memory lane. But that’d be like calling Mardi Gras a parade.”

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Credit…Netflix

This documentary series follows college football hopefuls who are teetering on the edge of oblivion, trying to bounce back from the academic, discipline and injury problems that derailed their dreams. The first two seasons were shot at East Mississippi Community College, the third and fourth at Independence Community College, in Kansas, and the fifth at Laney College in Oakland, Calif. Each balances stories about the players with a look at their tutors and coaches, showing how they all must adjust their hopes and expectations. Our critic Margaret Lyons wrote, “Alongside the show’s ability to engender simmering loathing for broken systems is its love for its subjects.”

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Credit…Netflix

After a ball to the head ended Bing Russell’s minor league career, he set aside his baseball dreams for a career in Hollywood, where he had a long-running role on “Bonanza” and took bullets dozens of times in various film and TV westerns. His son Kurt would become a much more famous actor, but the elder Russell returned to the game in 1973 by founding the Class-A Portland Mavericks, the only minor league team not affiliated with a professional franchise. With an outlaw spirit and a keen eye for talent, Russell, as the owner of the team, assembled a rogue’s gallery of players — including “Ball Four” author Jim Bouton — and his success galvanized a city that had previously given up on the game. In celebrating the team’s independent spirit, “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” suggests what’s missing from the corporate game.

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Credit…Richard Vevers/The Ocean Agency, via Netflix

For most modern nature docs, ravishing images are the sugar that make the climate change medicine go down, but “Chasing Coral” is a case where beauty and environmental sickness are not so easily separated. Coral reefs are the treasures of the ocean, colorful and sophisticated natural structures that provide a sustainable home for tropical fish and other marine animals. Jeff Orlowski’s alarming documentary grapples with the fast-spreading phenomenon of “coral bleaching,” in which a two-degree rise in water temperature is wiping out reefs from around the world. There’s still a visual magnificence to these haunted latticeworks—the film isn’t just muckraking—but Orlowski is calling urgent attention to a crisis that’s underwater, and thus easy to ignore.

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Credit…Jeff Wilson/Silverback Films, via Netflix

As climate change has continued to drive animal populations toward oblivion, nature documentaries as a genre have shifted their emphasis in kind — from gawping at the beauty and mysteries of nature to fretting over calamitous disruptions of ecosystems. BBC audiences grew up with David Attenborough introducing them to exotic wonderments, but with “Our Planet,” an eight-episode Netflix series of staggering scale, the nonagenarian legend frequently adopts a more sober tone. The enthusiasm is still present, however, in a show that starts with a locale-jumping survey of the globe before settling into episodes set in jungles, deserts, tundra and seas, and one difficult hour on fresh water sources. Documentaries don’t get any more ambitious than this.

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Credit…Netflix

What happens in the animal kingdom when the lights go down? It’s not something many nature documentaries have had the opportunity to consider, given their dependence on natural light. But the special cameras deployed for “Night on Earth” are either heat-sensitive or able to capture images by moonlight. Over six episodes, narrated in an soothing whisper by Samira Wiley, “Night on Earth” is lighter on substance than it should be, but the predatory strategies of nocturnal animals are a rare treat to witness. An episode on “Sleepless Cities,” too, is a fascinating look at how animals have adapted to unnatural concrete jungles, poaching from their human neighbors under cover of darkness.

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You’ll need to carve out some time in your schedule to watch all of “Hip-Hop Evolution,” a 16-part series that’s been spread across four seasons. But this project is worth the effort. Each episode has a theme and purpose: whether it’s describing a subgenre or covering a key moment in the history of rap. A lot of the feature documentaries about hip-hop remain stuck in the ’80s and ’90s; but “Hip-Hop Evolution” presses on into the 2000s, making room for the “Dirty South” sound, the experiments of the Neptunes crew, the controversies surrounding the mixtape revolution and more.

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Credit…Netflix

Taylor Swift comes from a generation of pop stars who’ve never had much of an “offstage” component to their careers. They expose themselves constantly, on social media and in their songs. Yet “Miss Americana” is still genuinely revealing. Lana Wilson spent a few years with Swift, during a time when she was moving into new phases with her sound and public persona. This film is about an idol trying to figure out how to use her influence wisely; but it’s also about the difficulties of wielding a strong voice in an era when fans and haters alike gather on the internet to dissect and question everything.

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Martin Scorsese directed this lengthy look back at one of Bob Dylan’s most fruitful creative periods: between 1961 and 1966, when he rose to prominence in the Greenwich Village folk scene, before leaving the New York traditionalists behind to embrace oblique literary expression and raw rock ’n’ roll. Not just a doc about Dylan, “No Direction Home” is also about the changes sweeping through American culture in the first half of the 1960s, and how the artists who survived and thrived were the ones who could steal from the past while keeping an eye on the future.

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Credit…Bruce Talamon/Netflix

Who better to make a documentary about Quincy Jones than his own daughter: the actress, writer and producer Rashida Jones? “Quincy” was shot over the course of several years by Jones and Alan Hicks. Their film combines a detailed and admiring biography of an EGOT-winning musician with more down-to-earth scenes of the man’s daily life in the present day, coping with increasingly poor health and heavy demands on his time. What emerges is an intimate portrait of a towering cultural figure.

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Success in the music business requires opportunity as well as skill; and sometimes extenuating circumstances can sideline a potentially great artist. That’s the theme of director Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man,” about a 1970s Detroit singer-songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez who became an improbable cult hero in apartheid-era South Africa, even though his fans didn’t know whether he was alive or dead. Bendjelloul turns a real-life investigation into Rodriguez’s past into a touching and tuneful look at how great music, no matter how obscure, can connect people.

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Credit…Netflix

The jazz and R&B singer Nina Simone had a complicated relationship with the press, the music business and her own friends and family — in part because of mental illness, and in part because she was politically outspoken and confrontational. Liz Garbus’s documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” includes interviews from people who knew Simone, which supplement extended performance footage, in which Simone stares down her audiences while singing some of the most thrilling American popular music of the 1960s.

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Credit…Netflix

Jonathan Demme’s final feature film was shot on the last two nights of Justin Timberlake’s “20/20 Experience” world tour, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The pairing of director and subject is unexpected, but Demme is up to the job; as in his Talking Heads film “Stop Making Sense,” he deftly captures the energy, electricity and playfulness of a live concert performance, a directorial feat that is harder than it looks.

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Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) directs this wide-ranging deep dive into mass incarceration, tracing the advent of America’s modern prison system — overcrowded and disproportionately populated by Black inmates — back to the 13th Amendment. It’s a giant topic to take on in 100 minutes, and DuVernay understandably has to do some skimming and slicing. But that necessity engenders its style: “13TH” tears through history with a palpable urgency that pairs nicely with its righteous fury. Our critic called it “powerful, infuriating and at times overwhelming.”

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Credit…Steve Honigsbaum/Netflix

“This camp changed the world,” we’re told, in the early moments of James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham’s documentary, “and nobody knew about it.” The most refreshing and surprising element of this moving chronicle is that, title notwithstanding, the subject is not Camp Jened, the Catskills getaway that offered disabled kids and teens a “normal” summer camp experience. It’s about how that camp was the epicenter of a movement — a place where they could be themselves and live their lives didn’t have to be a utopian ideal, but a notion that they could carry out into the world, and use as a baseline for change.

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The Oscar-nominated director David France (“How to Survive a Plague”) pays overdue tribute to Ms. Johnson, affectionately nicknamed the Mayor of Christopher Street, telling the story of her eventful life through interviews with friends and fascinating archival footage. And by framing her story as an investigation into her mysterious death 25 years before — an investigation led by Victoria Cruz, another transgender activist — France draws an explicit and affecting parallel to the violence against transgender women of color today. The result is both a powerful look at our past and a frightening snapshot of our present.

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Documentary filmmakers have long been fascinated by the logistics and complexities of manual labor, but Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s recent Oscar winner for best documentary feature views these issues through a decidedly 21st-century lens. Focusing on a closed GM plant in Dayton, Ohio, that’s taken over by a Chinese auto glass company, Bognar and Reichert thoughtfully, sensitively (and often humorously) explore how cultures — both corporate and general — clash. Manohla Dargis calls it “complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present and possible future of American labor.”

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Credit…Sedat Pakay

This stunning documentary concerns the life and writings of James Baldwin, but it’s less focused on tracing the arc of its subject’s life than on the potency of his words. Director Raoul Peck uses as his framework the notes of Baldwin’s unfinished book “Remember This House,” in which Baldwin was attempting to reckon with the legacies of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers; guided by Baldwin’s passages, Peck constructs an urgent and audacious essay about our past and our present. Our critic called it “a concise, roughly 90-minute movie with the scope and impact of a 10-hour mini-series.”

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For over 50 years, the entertainment manager and promoter Clarence Avant has been a quiet but influential presence in American music, movies, sports and politics, working behind the scenes to connect the right people with each other. In his documentary “The Black Godfather,” the director Reginald Hudlin turns a spotlight onto Avant, who has helped boost the careers of everyone from Hank Aaron to Quincy Jones to Barack Obama. This is a portrait of a man who has made his many friends a lot of money, but has also urged them — always — to keep their higher ideals in mind.

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Credit…Abramorama

The acclaimed Broadway team of the composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and his friend and producer Hal Prince had a phenomenal run in the 1970s, but suffered a catastrophic flop with the experimental 1981 musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” which told a sad story — in reverse chronological order — about three showbiz pals growing apart. Though the experience was emotionally devastating, the documentary about it is genuinely cheering. The musical has since become a widely acknowledged classic, and many of the aspiring stars who worked on the original production remember that time fondly, as a wonderful dream they all woke up from prematurely.

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For much of his adult life, the comedy writer Steve Young has had an unusual hobby: collecting memorabilia related to musical theater productions commissioned by corporate sponsors, to be performed for a select audience of owner-operators and salespeople. “Bathtubs Over Broadway” is about the strange history of these bespoke shows, seen by few and forgotten by most. But it’s also about Young, whose interest in these “industrials” started out as smirky and ironic, but then became a passionate personal mission, to prove that even those who toiled at the margins of the entertainment business had created something of lasting value.

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Credit…Netflix

There was no independent film scene in Singapore when Sandi Tan was a culture-crazy teenager there in the early ’90s, so she and her best friend, along with a mysterious mentor twice their ages, decided to created one themselves. Tan set out to make her own answer to Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” a personal and playfully experimental road movie set on an island nation it takes only 40 minutes to drive across. But then that older mentor, a blue-eyed American film director named Georges Cordona, absconded with 70 16-millimeter film canisters, dashing Tan’s moviemaking dreams. Finally having recovered the footage after Cordona’s death, Tan assembled it into “Shirkers,” an inspired and delirious memoir about her youth and the film that might have sparked a career.

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This guide was compiled from the following lists: The 50 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now, The 50 Best TV Series on Netflix Right Now, 13 Uplifting Documentaries on Netflix, 12 Great True-Crime Documentaries On Netflix, 12 Recent Netflix Originals Worth Streaming and 11 Great Music Documentaries on Netflix.

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